Monday, February 1, 2010

On Hidden Mechanisms of Influence

In the wake of the fun I had on my last visit back to Santa Cruz, I’ve been thinking more about Robert Cialdini’s impressive book on influence. (See previous post.) I’ve started to do with it what I always do with theories that interest me--to take it apart. (The engineer in me can’t resist.) An besides, I suspect that a weight of highly useful improv games lurk somewhere in this material, waiting to be teased out. Not to mention further valuable insights about how people interact.

Cialdini quotes six mechanisms through which human beings are influenced by others. These are:
Reciprocity: the urge to return favors.
Consistency: the urge to appear to have stable opinions and behaviors.
Social Proof: the habit of assuming that behaviors exhibited by others represent a standard for acceptability and wisdom.
Authority: the habit of assuming that those bearing the social trappings of power can be trusted.
Liking: the urge to make compromises when dealing with those with whom we have a pre-existing bond.
Scarcity: the urge to act quickly when we perceive a valuable commodity to be in limited supply.

Why six mechanisms? And why these six? Business book authors seem to be crazy about lists. (The five habits of great leaders. The seven guaranteed paths to selling. The twenty three easy steps to world domination, etc.) There is probably fascinating study to be done on this topic in its own right--to try to work out why lists hold such appeal. However, that’s not my focus here, and personally, I mistrust lists.

Whenever someone quotes a list at you, it’s effectively a statement that the system they’re describing has symmetry of that order. In other words, the structure that underpins the system can’t be broken down into some simpler pattern. In my experience, things in life seldom have symmetry as consistent, orderly and complex as order six without something going on underneath.

So how about these patterns of influence? Do they have a deeper structure? I think so. Right away, we can break Cialdini’s list down on the basis of the type behavior to which they relate. The mechanisms of Scarcity and Social Proof both relate to the behavior of individuals operating in anonymous groups. They’re not specific to people. You can see the same behaviors in shoals of fish, in their patterns of feeding and flocking. Feeding patterns reflect Scarcity: ‘food is suddenly available and I might not get some’. Flocking reflects Social Proof: ‘everyone’s turning left so there must be a good reason to do so’. The same primal patterns of social optimization can even be found in bacteria.

At the other end of the scale, the mechanism of Authority relates specifically to hierarchical behavior, which you only get in those organisms that collaborate in structured groups. Furthermore, it’s culturally dependent. A man dressed as a witch doctor with lion’s teeth around his neck is going to be less immediately authoritative to a western audience than a man in an Armani suit. This mechanism clearly equates to the improv principle of status.

Between these two extremes lie Reciprocity, Consistency and Liking, all of which relate to building and maintaining relationships with peers. Thus, we can see that there are three levels of social behavior being revealed: hierarchically-connected, peer-connected, and group-connected. (Intriguingly, these layers correspond to the first the scenes in a Vanilla 6-Hander improv play, but that’s perhaps material for another post.) The next question is whether we can slice up each these layers in ways that reveal further structure. Doing so might reveal gaps in Cialdini’s findings and uncover mechanisms that he missed. And this is where it gets interesting.

Let’s look at the group-connected layer first. What’s the difference between Scarcity and Social Proof? While they share the common idea that ‘other people know something I don’t’, I would suggest that Scarcity relates to group competition while Social Proof reflects collaboration of a very basic sort.

However, if we then look at the peer layer--Reciprocity, Consistency and Liking--a different pattern emerges. There’s no pattern in this set that obviously relates to collaboration versus competition. Instead, these three mechanisms appear to correspond to different points on a relationship-building time-line. Reciprocity relates to how people respond to overtures of alliance. Consistency encourages people to behave in a reliable fashion while a relationship is being developed so that others can build predictive models of their behavior. Liking reflects reluctance to break a social bond once it has been fully formed.

Then, last of all we come to the mechanism of Authority, sitting in a group all on its own. Can we infer the existence of other missing mechanisms to this group by applying the patterns we found in the other two groups? Perhaps. I haven’t managed this yet. However, there’s a more obvious omission here. Hierarchies of individuals generally don’t only involve information passing from the top to the bottom. Information percolates back up as well. Thus, given that human beings have been forming hierarchies for a very long time, shouldn’t we also see patterns of influence here too?

Of course we do. I would refer to this new principle as that of Vulnerability. Hard-wired examples involve the ‘looking up cluster’ that women apply to men. This involves body language that’s low-status, yet gently coercive. Consider also tropes such as the female hitch-hiker by the side of the road whose boyfriend suddenly appears when a ride is acquired. Many of us will also be familiar with how successful children can be at exerting social influence on their parents, even though their apparent bargaining position is very weak. I suspect that there are a host of influence tricks that belong in this bucket.

I think Cialdini missed this mechanism because it because it’s employed less frequently by sales-people and managers. However, this doesn’t mean that it’s not widely used. A female friend of mine won accolades in her younger days for her door-to-door fund-raising. She raised a staggeringly greater amount of money than her peers working in the same charity because her approach combined quick-witted dialog with a highly non-threatening appearance. Doors opened for her that would open for nobody else.

Thus, all told, we’ve now got seven mechanisms that occupy slots in a more clearly defined structure. What’s curious, though, is that each layer of social interaction we’ve defined comes with its own symmetry. This suggests that Robert Cialdini effectively nailed six out of seven of the major channels of human interaction--at least if you believe the model we’ve constructed here. That’s impressive. However, the lingering question in my mind still whether we can take what we’ve found here and use it to create behavioral games that enable people to do things they’ve never achieved before. And that’s something I’m still working on.

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